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Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux: Path of Totality

Steve Provizer By

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Composer/musician/producer Quinsin Nachoff, the force behind Path of Totality, is interested in and is at least somewhat conversant with physics and other things celestial. The 'Totality' he refers to in the title is that period of complete darkness, which is achieved during a complete solar eclipse. Of course, using themes is fairly common in jazz releases (The Moon, Springtime, Cole Porter, etc.) and it's always folly to overdraw metaphors drawn from science (or, for that matter, from another art form). That said, there are ways in which the sonic and rhythmic landscapes Nachoff creates here do fit well within the concept of bodies moving in space, into and out of darkness. And, at least in some of the music here, Nachoff tries to move from the metaphorical to the concrete by consulting with Dr. Stephen Morris, a physicist at the University of Toronto in order to try and translate experimental data into musical form.

Nachoff is involved in a number of ensembles, including the Ethereal Trio, Horizons Ensemble, FoMo quartet and the Pyramid Project. This group is called Flux and aside from Nachoff, the group includes saxophonist David Binney, pianist Matt Mitchell and percussionists Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. All are well-traveled, adept musicians, with experience in multiple genres. A number of other musicians are brought in to buttress some tracks.

To expand the sonic possibilities of this recording, Nachoff utilized his status as an Artist-in-Residence at Canada's National Music Centre and spent three weeks exploring the Centre's extensive acoustic and electronic keyboard collection. If there are a number of sounds on this recording that are unusual or hard to identify, no doubt this is why.

The title track, "Path of Totality," begins with a repeated riff by piano and rhythm section with dual drummers that Nachoff subjects to unexpected rhythmic shifts. It feels like someone trying to walk with one leg periodically giving out. Saxophones enter with a unison line and the rhythm section continues with a herky-jerky underpinning. The sax line begins to expand, leading to Binney's solo on alto sax. The solo continues with some propulsion, even though the rhythm section enters and exits somewhat randomly. Binney passes it to Nachoff on tenor, who plays a compelling-post-Coltrane solo with an individual feel. Piano comping underneath varies widely between consonance and dissonance and the whole rhythm section has a feeling of barely controlled bedlam. Both saxophones reenter, mostly in unison, but sometimes phasing in and out and moving toward more entropy until the track suddenly ends.

"Bounce," is built on the mathematical model of a bouncing ball. It starts with random synth sounds and goes to a moving piano line that exits as an aggressive trap drum solo takes over. Drummer Nate Wood moves into a definite tempo that summons back the piano and a sparse horn line. False starts dominate. The drummer resumes his solo and once again a tempo is established, this time for a Binney alto sax solo. Drums maintain a steady beat, while piano forcefully manipulates the tempo. The alto sax moves all over the horn, feeding gracefully off this multi-plexed rhythm section. There is a clear harmony which tends toward the minor, then through a more suspended feel until both saxophones come back in unison. We go out of tempo and synth sounds wash in the background. Nachoff on tenor sax moves "off the horn" for overtones and other sounds. There's a brief Latin rhythm section that seems oddly prosaic in this context, then a number of other short sections with a variation of approaches to meter and harmony. Pointillist piano and drumming follow, then piano alone in an almost romantic mode- with a few glass shards thrown in. A duet with piano and drums follows, of medium energy but utilizing a lot of good listening among the musicians. The intensity builds and saxophones enter with a calling riff; again sometimes in unison and sometimes phasing. A churning Kimball piano solo leads to the weighty sound of a large organ (a 1924 Kimball Theatre Organ) washing in on top with large chords. Following some back and forth between sections, we quickly close. A fine art comparison to the feeling of the overall last third of the song might be that of looking at a canvas that contains a number of intricately rendered small boxes with interesting things going on in each; some more and some less obviously linked to others.

The progenitor of "Toy Piano Meditation" is composer John Cage's 1948 "Suite for Toy Piano." Here, pianist Matt Mitchell outlines a pentatonic feel with some dissonant notes. Percussion adds various colors with tam-tam, gongs and cymbals. Saxophones enter with a fragment of the pentatonic riff and move into a kind of slowed-down call and response with the piano. This becomes an even more atmospheric section, with piano, organ and possibly other electronic keyboard sounds. It's all very hesitant and evocative of something happening just offstage. Variations on the harmony and multiple tonalities are explored slowly in this lengthy section (the track is almost 20 minutes long). Eventually a more consonant approach returns with the horns' re-entrance. Marimba, vibes and glockenspiel sketch out a bare harmony for the tenor saxophonist to follow in his improvisation and a stately tempo is marked by the percussion. The harmony slowly and subtly shifts. Indonesian Gamelon music had been foreshadowed with pentatonic scales and certain rhythms from the beginning and alluded to throughout the track. Now, percussion sounds that clearly refer to Gamelon delicately move with tenor, then alto sax solos. The intensity builds with alto sax and then breaks apart, much as an ice floe might with a rapid rise in temperature. Binney on alto caps the tune with a final deft cadenza.

"March Macabre" begins with what the album notes say is percussionist "Wollesen's "march machine," a wooden board outfitted with a row of clomping clogs, [which] provides the marching beat that opens the piece on a totalitarian note." This is a mordant take on the current political situation in the U.S, the music pointing us to a broken system. It is fragmented, more noise-oriented and highly varied in timbres. Binney on C Melody sax and Nachoff on soprano sax solo over and under those riffs. Nachoff leaves Binney to solo as the 'march machine' comes and goes. A pump harmonium (think drone in Indian music) played by Mitchell takes off on a peregrination. Stoic riffs take over and soprano sax enters, Nachoff slowly building his solo until he seems to be crying into a militaristic wilderness. Trombones, trumpets, baritone sax and bass clarinet supplement the ranks. With this larger section, there's more "part writing" and counterpoint—until the chaos breaks through to destroy this relative order. Then, anomalously, the sounds of tap dancer Orlando Hernández are heard against an ominous backdrop. The backdrop falls away and the dancer is left to end the tune by himself. The album notes say: ..."the lockstep has been broken and individual freedom restored." That is uncertain.

"Splatter" begins with Matt Mitchell on solo harpsichord. Harpsichord in this mode and timbre naturally summons up Baroque music and, for many jazz people, "Sun Ra." Pointillist keyboard ensues, with electronic washes in the background. Saxophones enter on top of this in a characteristic way-partially in unison and partially phasing in and out of each other. Binney's alto sax takes over as the wash grows in intensity, as does the rhythm section. The alto is virtuosic; moving all over the horn, but with a sense of form; each phrase carrying to the next. The ensemble then splinters, with Nachoff on tenor sax threading his way through the density. We then return to both saxophones restating their theme, with an ominous rhythm section churn underneath and a final pointillist section, with chaotic synth emerging for the close.

Saxophones in counterpoint with repeating riffs alternating with the rhythm section establishes the pattern of "Orbital Resonances," the album's closing track. We move to freer duets between the saxophones, but the pattern continues, with both drummers getting a chance to expand their ideas. About halfway through the tune, the pattern slightly shifts, still alternating saxophones and rhythm section but with more overlap and allowing pianist Mitchell to stretch out. We cycle through short solos as the meter coheres and the rhythm section moves as a unit while saxophones comment with improvisations underneath and the song fades out.

There may be some slightly overused approaches in this recording-the fragmentary nature of the horn lines; their unison relationship that moves into phasing with each other and the call and response of horns and rhythm section. However, there is an enormous amount of creativity bound up in these compositions and arrangements and great virtuosity in the soloing by all members of the group. The array of keyboards, re-combinations of the main musicians and the addition of other musicians to supplement the band provide an enormous array of colors. This is a unique recording, created with great attention to form and detail and performed with great skill.

Track Listing: Path of Totality, Bounce, Toy Piano Meditation, March Macabre, Splatter, Orbital Resonances.

Personnel: David Binney: alto saxophone, C melody saxophone; Quinsin Nachoff: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Matt Mitchell: piano, Prophet 6, modular synthesizer, Novachord, harpsichord, Estey pump harmonium; Kenny Wollesen (1,3,4,6): drums, Wollesonic percussion; Nate Wood (1,2,5,6): drums. Plus: On Bounce: Jason Barnsley: 1924 Kimball Theatre Organ. On Toy Piano Meditation: Mark Duggan: marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, Tibetan singing bowls. On March Macabre: Carl Maraghi: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet. Dan Urness, Matt Holman: trumpet; Ryan Keberle: trombone. Alan Ferber: trombone, bass trombone; Orlando Hernández: tap dance. On Splatter: David Travers-Smith: Buchla 200E analog modular system, EMS Synthi 100 analog/digital hybrid synthesizer, Arp Chroma (Rhodes) analog synthesizer, clavioline, Oberheim SEM, modular Moog.

Title: Path of Totality | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Whirlwind Records

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